Thursday, September 30, 2010


I got a chance to get some updates on folks I have introduced in earlier posts, and I wanted to share them. I guess this is the first weave of the woven stories that I promised. It's a short update, but an update nonetheless.

I'd been away from the market for over a month for a variety of reasons, but the talk of all the stalls Sunday was no different than that in the office cubbie: stinkbugs. and the discussion no less animated. All of the local farmers have been hurt by this year's stinkbug invasion. Unlike many other bugs attack on the fruits of your labor, this one is rather insidious. The bugs poke a tiny hole into things like tomatoes to feed, as I understand it.  So the fruit looks fine on the vine. When you take it off, that open wound starts to rot quickly and you'll get some oozing sometimes. Organically the way they are dealing with these beasts is pick them off and squish them. Tom of Nevr-Dun finds their smell the smell of victory (with the number flying around, I'd call it a small victory), and at least one of his clients thinks the smell is "woodsy".  Most other people think they plain stink. If you did want to spray them, there doesn't appear to be much option there. I haven't looked into this in great depth, but Karen of Serpent Ridge Winery, who I introduced here, noted that they are still waiting guidance from the USDA on handling the bugs. For their part, luckily, they have seen a lot of bugs, but don't feel their crop has been impacted.

The market on Saturday yielded the first bag of lettuce for the Fall season (for me, at least). It's amazing how good a fresh salad can taste. While we have lots of variants on salad during the Summer with various fresh produce, lettuce hasn't been available locally since June. So, no salads for us since June. The challenge of eating this way tests our creativity and ability to work with what we have.  No cold turkey here, I've been slowly increasing our dependency on local produce and reducing our reliance on the supermarket over a couple of years. This Summer is probably the first three month period where not a single item, I think, was bought from the store. So, the first salad of the season, with our own cucumber, our friend's tomatoes, radishes and peppers from the market, and our own lemon-infused vinegar, was amazing.  But, I digress....

Everyone has definitely struggled with the stinkbugs, and the drought is no less a problem. The farmer's I talk to use have a wide range of irrigation philosophies. Some are using water from their city water supply, some rely only on rain barrels, and some rely on nature. The latter were hit badly this year.  Shawn and Josie (introduced here)  have been using their water supply to keep their acre plus of property for Truffula Seed Produce going. This does mean very creative water hauling, as the property is divided across a road and their is no water on the one side. They have access to an old, deep well and would like to get that going so that they can rely on the rain more. But that requires investment in a pump and various other things; funds that they don't have now. Still, they've done pretty well this year and are sticking in for another. This was their first year at the market, and they had rented one property to grow on. In the coming months, they are hoping to find a second property, an acre, so that they can expand their farm next year and provide a CSA, as well as the Westminster Market. As though they had nothing else to do, Shawn is starting a graduate program at Goddard College in Vermont. It's an interdisciplinary program in sustainable farming, looking at the practicalities of sustainable, local, organic farming practices on scale. He'll do most of his work here, while he's still working their land. Josie is busy too with a bunch of canning. I've done some this year, but she love canning, as she described in this post. Because of her background in photography, her posts always have these fabulous photos and layout. She also has a posts on the beans that I described, but again, her photos are fabulous.  Otherwise, their Fall crops are coming along. They had some issues with the first set of seeds not germinating fully, but now everything is coming along. So they'll be in the market until November.

Serpent Ridge is now at the new wine season. They are picking their reds this Saturday and received shipment of the juice from the grapes they can't grow themselves over the last few weeks. Later in the month is pressing. I hope to be present for that and bring back tales of that adventure.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Local chicken and eggs

Chickens have certainly been in the news a lot lately, and so I thought I would add to the frenzy and write a little about our experience with local chicken farming, both for eggs and meat. I think I was first exposed to writing about pastured chickens through Michael Pollan, though it could of been a number of other authors. It was some time before I actually had a real local farmer's egg. I had read that the eggs were much richer in color and in taste, and that the yolks seemed to stand more boldly from the raw whites. That all sounded great, but my interest was really piqued by the topic of the last month or so: salmonella.

In Italy, we had been taught to use raw eggs for the dessert, tiramisu. We asked them at the time about getting sick from raw eggs, and they assured us that it wasn't possible. Our cooking instructor showed us a number stamped to the bottom of our eggs and said that this guaranteed they were safe. In truth, I have no idea what those numbers meant or whether the European Union has any better luck with raw egg-borne illness. But we didn't get sick, either.  With concern over consuming raw eggs back here in the States, we tried to find alternatives. The primary suggestion for this and similar uses of eggs is to actually cook the eggs to kill any bacteria in what was called a custard. I read the directions carefully and decided that it required far more work than I was willing to put in, not to mention a level of skill I was sure not to have. I turned to purchasing "cage free" eggs from the supermarket thinking that they must be better. Maybe they are; I'm not quite sure. But I did come to realize through further research that the words "cage free" didn't really mean what I thought (like, without a cage) and the cost for the label seemed unreasonable. The eggs might be a bit darker than the average supermarket egg, but I certainly wasn't overly impressed. Then a few years ago, we joined a CSA (community supported agriculture) at Ceilidh Meadows Farm in Gamber, Maryland, owned by Donna and Charlie Hancock. Ah, we would get to experience all the cool things I'd read about that connected people with other people through local farming. Sure enough, the first morning that I pulled up their long driveway to pick up our weekly produce, the yards was filled with wandering chickens. This was a bit unnerving for me, but didn't seem to phase the chickens. The colors of the animals were remarkable, and they completely challenged my image of the white egg layer chicken. When we got home that afternoon, we cracked the remaining store bought eggs right next to Donna and Charlie's eggs. The difference was stark. They weren't just darker, they really were deep orange. And the flavor was much stronger. It was a great introduction to a new way of living. 

About the same time, our friends Maureen and Mike decided they too would raise chickens. Really? People I knew didn't raise chickens. At least not at the time. But they soon had three layers in the coop they built on the edge of their yard. (Those are the ones in the photo at the top of this entry. )

Their backyard coop
Soon after that, it seemed that chicken raising, for the purpose of eggs, was all in vogue. A Washington Post article highlighted the growing trend of urban chicken coops. These aren't exactly what the Hancocks have on their property. At the Hancock farm, the chickens and roosters are just roaming. Sometimes they get off the property, and sometimes they get killed. During our Summer in their CSA, more than one chicken hid and kept their eggs, giving birth to a new set of chicks for the flock. The urban set up is a small cage, though it seems that frequently people move the cage about the yard to have the chickens aerate the soil. Our friends too didn't have free running chickens; when theirs were out of the coop and adjoining caged yard, they were supervised. The chance of a fox or raccoon getting them seems to great to them. Maureen started getting old organic produce from markets for the chickens, giving them a much wider variety in their diet. And the eggs became deeper in color and taste all the while. And just good ole egg "look"... they recently won a blue and red ribbon at the Howard County Fair for their eggs appearance. The kids are in the mix, collecting the eggs and helping feed the group. Not to mention, picking them up at random and carrying them about the yard; chickens seem more amenable to three year olds than the average dog. Their flock has grown too. Maureen has adopted the chicks that the kid's elementary school hatches for science. And when a few of those turned out to be roosters, she found them a home at White Rose Farm where they could grow old crowing. Now the family have around 10 chickens laying every day. That many eggs adds up fast. But the great thing is that others like myself are quite willing to pay for eggs like that. Maureen and Mike are saving those proceeds to build another coop for meat chickens…. and a whole new adventure. 

At the time Maureen picked up their first set of chickens, I had never heard the term "layer". I had no idea that egg laying chickens weren't exactly the same as chickens used for meat. No idea that the timeline and setup for these two kinds of chickens are completely different. In fact, a little bit of research revealed that the number of farmers providing eggs in the area far exceeded the number offering meat.  I had read that aside from a wide range of environmental and economic pluses, free range chickens tasted richer than those from the big Purdue and Tysons farms. Documentaries on these giant industries have proliferated in the last few years, and an understanding of the unsavory practices against both low-income farmers and the animals themselves, among other things, has widely grown in the community. In many cases, these farmers, particularly those in the rural south are akin to indentured servants, pouring massive investments into an uncertain future. There didn't seem to be ton of evidence that the big organic companies were a ton better; better, granted. Somewhere along the line, we decided to opt out. I had read about Joe Salatin's farm in Virginia, again, I think, through Michael Pollan, and was sure there must be similar set ups in Central Maryland. His farming practices seemed ideal all around, and we were willing to pay extra for all the perceived benefits. 

The first farm we purchased from was Jehovah Jirah, in Washington County. We were thrilled with the product. Is it different from store bought chicken? I recall that I thought so at the time. Since it is all I've eaten for a long time, it's now all I know. But, I recall our group conversations shortly after we got our first order. It seemed that the meat was a bit more "gamey" than the average bird, and their chickens were also a bit smaller. Since then, we've purchased from several farmers and have found sources within Carroll County. I have also learned that there a number of varieties raised, yielding different characteristics. One of our primary sources for the past year is Michael Akeys of Green Akeys Farm outside Westminster. He has raised at least three varieties in that past year, heritage and "commercial" breeds. He recently likened the more commercial Cornish Cross bird to a couch potato: the birds will sit at the grain bin all day and ignore the huge pasture they have at their disposal. Apparently the Freedom Ranger is a better breed, still having a decent amount of meat on their bones, but willing to get out and stretch their legs! Michael isn't convinced that the true heritage chickens are the way to go. These older birds tend to be smaller, with much less meat, particularly breast meat, on them, and they just aren't as popular with customers, he says. As a customer, we did find the heritage birds we purchased last year a bit small and found nothing superior in their flavor. So, we're quite happy with his decision to grow Freedom Ranger, and we're really glad that he is experimenting and evaluating along the way. Interestingly, he and his family have only been farming a few years, having decided to take the plunge and buy a 62-acre farm after finding the eggs from the CSA they joined four years ago so fantastic. That's an amazing transition from consumer to supplier, and I plan to write an entry on the family farm soon. In the meantime, here's their blog

The difficulty for the average consumer in purchasing from farms like JJ and Green Akeys is that it takes planning. You generally need to order in advance. Birds are only "processed" every several weeks. So it certainly isn't as convenient as dropping by the local store. We tend to buy a bunch at one time, which will tie us over for a few months at a time. But there are others options. Many farmers markets have one or two vendors selling directly. This allows people a chance to buy each week what they need.  At the Westminster Market, I buy from Scott of Sattva Farm in Frederick County. His chickens are certified organic and taste great, but he's not on the Net much. To find Scott, you want to find your way to the market. 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Summer Reading

I have several posts in my mind right now, but unfortunately, haven't had the time to get them out and onto paper. I thought I'd start this one by highlighting some of the reading I'd done this summer, and where I plan to take what I learned to investigate and write some new blogs in the near future. Call it a preview. With references.

I tend to read mostly non-fiction and in the last year have read a lot about food and food movements. I'm amazed at how influential the written word can be, how it can drive people to make wholesale changes in their lives and behaviour. The classics in local living, or at least the mosts referenced in my experience, are Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and several by Michael Pollan, most often Omnivore's Dilemma.  I think the former tends to resonate heavily with people who like a personal story, to which they can relate and be encouraged to take on similar endeavors. Kingsolver makes it attractive to try living locally, at least just a bit. The number of people I have met who cite her book as a major source of change in their lives is huge. And more than one have taken steps such as raising chickens based on her family's story. I myself started making cheese solely based on her insistence that it really wasn't that hard to make mozzarella cheese. As a result of that chain, I now make yogurt every week, and it's the best you'll ever taste. So, those kinds of works are extremely motivating. Others like this are Plenty, by the Canadian couple who was among the first to attempt a 100-mile challenge, and the more extreme See you in a Hundred Years, from the New York couple that decides to regress to the turn of the 20th century in the Virginia countryside for a one year period. Ok, I'm not sure that the latter book will motivate many people to give up running water, even for a month, but it is interesting.

Michael Pollan of course has a long run of books that are fact-based accounts of food and food industry. Omnivore's Dilemma hit my sweet spot, at least for the first three-quarters of the book, and I found the material both shocking and enthralling.  I can source that book as a major change point in my life, leading to a massive reduction in the use of grade two corn products and a complete re-evaluation of our family's meat sources. Because of that material, I initiated group buying of pasture-raised meat and all of our meat in the last eighteen months has been purchased from local farmers practicing sustainable, admirable techniques. That book is a bit thick for many, and I know a lot of people preferred Food Rules, though I never read that one. Going outside of reading and onto the screen, the film Food, Inc. has had a massive influence people and the way that they think about food. I have had countless people ask me about that film and other tv reports that have spawned since it was released. Another fabulous fact-based book about nutrition, so with a different perspective than Pollan's work, is Real Food, by Nina Plank. I read that one sometime in the Spring, and I thought it was absolutely excellent.

But I digress, as I didn't read any of these works this Summer. I did read Organic, Inc. though, by Samuel Fromartz. This is sort of a mix of the two styles above. Fromartz discusses the history, motivation, and existing tensions of the organic food movement and industry, starting in the early twentieth century. He interweaves the stories of farmers who have tried to make a living from sustainable  agricultural practices in a global economy world. A central theme is this tension between organic and local movements, and whether that can realistically be one in the same. As organic food becomes more widely consumed, what is the impact of the resulting Big Organic industry.  It's definitely an interesting read for the lover of non-fiction, fact-based, stories kinda things. Here in Maryland there are a number of local farmers who are certified organic, and a number who aren't. I am also seeing more Naturally Grown labels posted. In any case, one of those is Nev-R-Dun Farm in Westminster, Md., owned by Tom Reinhardt. In the last few months, he went through his recertification process and I hope to talk to him soon about what that entails, why he's going through formal certification (which costs), and what he thinks about being an organic farmer in Maryland. More to come on that. In the meantime, you can find Tom at the Westminster Farmers markets (Sun/Tue) and at his website,

Another book I picked up in the middle of Summer and haven't completely made my way through is The Winter Harvest Handbook, by Eliot Coleman. This came to my attention through Amazon "recommended for you" and the subtitle is Year-round vegetable production using deep-organic techniques and unheated greenhouses. I like the idea of year round vegetable production, so I took a closer look. Low and behold, they are running a winter CSA (community support agriculture) in Maine, growing produce in unheated greenhouses. This just fascinates me to no end. I have a small greenhouse that I usually run as a cool house, meaning at around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but here they are in Maine, in lots of snow, using no heater at all and making enough produce to sell to folks. It motivated me to get my own greens, like lettuce and a few other things, in the ground early enough so that they should provide a harvest without using electricity this late-Fall and winter. It also motivated me to find a winter CSA somewhere that I could take advantage of for fresh produce through the winter months. Thanks to Local Harvest (, I was able to locate a winter CSA about 40 miles away in Pennsylvania. It means we'll have to take a hike every few weeks to pick up food, but I gathered up some friends to pitch in, and it seems well worth the experiment. This CSA doesn't start until nearly Thanksgiving, but as it does, I'll report on that experience. The farm we've subscribed to is Everblossom Farm,, just outside Gettysburg.

Another book from this Summer was Made by Hand by Mark Frauenfelder. The subtitle of this new book is Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway world. This is a light read that fed into my own drive to be self-sufficient, or to at least have the knowledge that you could be. Fraenfelder takes the reader through his own adventures of raising chickens, keeping bees, building musical instruments, pursuing edible landscaping/permaculture, and the like.  I'm not about to raise chickens, but I do plan on writing a post about my friend who has taken on raising egg layers over the last year and a half.

Other things in the head and hopefully soon in the works are a few local farmers we buy from: Michael Akeys of Green Akeys farms ( just sold me eighteen chickens in the last few weeks after an eventful six months trying to get them all to processing stage, thanks to intervention by the local fox population. And, Greg Thorne of Thorne Farm in Westminster runs a naturally grown 25-acre farm with a wide selection of produce, but also flock of sheep that are used both for wool and meat. (